Toronto Star

Mali fears Islamic militants as France pulls out troops


TIMBUKTU, MALI—It’s been nine years since Islamic extremists in northern Mali arrested Zahra Abdou on charges of showing her hair and wearing an outfit they said was too tight.

The al-Qaida-linked militants who had seized control of this fabled desert centre in 2012 whipped Abdou in front of a throng of people in her neighbourh­ood.

Older women tried to stop the flogging but were prevented by the extremists.

The trauma still torments her, she says. Her anxiety has increased since France announced in July that it will halve its 5,000 troops in Mali by 2022. After years of leading the fight against jihadists in Mali’s north, the French military will close its bases in Timbuktu and other northern centres.

Just as the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanista­n, Abdou says she fears it’s only a matter of time before the extremists who punished her again rule Timbuktu and other cities in Mali’s north.

“I am afraid that the same thing will happen that took place in 2012,” she says, now 30 and still struggling with insomnia. “Because of this, I didn’t get my baccalaure­ate degree, I was too traumatize­d. I wanted to study commerce, to do business.

For centuries, Timbuktu has been a centre for Islamic scholars who generally practiced a moderate form of Islam. In 2012, a new band of extremists, many from Algeria, establishe­d themselves, taking advantage of the Mali government’s lack of presence in the north.

Soon the extremists began enforcing their strict interpreta­tion of Shariah, or Islamic law, flogging women like Abdou and amputating the hands of accused thieves. Like the Taliban in Afghanista­n, Mali’s militants, known as Ansar Dine, targeted historic cultural sites that they said were idolatrous, destroying ancient, treasured mausoleums that were UNESCO World Heritage sites. They also banned music.

Women were required to wear a veil covering their heads and girls were no longer taught in the same classroom as boys.

Unlike in Afghanista­n, the extremists’ rule in northern Mali was brief — France led a military interventi­on just a year later that forced Ansar Dine from Timbuktu and other northern cities in early 2013. That same year, a woman was elected as a deputy to represent Timbuktu in Mali’s National Assembly.

But the Islamic extremists were never fully defeated, dispersing into the desert from where they launch scores of attacks on the Malian military and UN peacekeepe­rs.

When France pulls its troops out of Timbuktu, the city will still be protected by Malian forces and some 800 UN peacekeepe­rs, mostly from Burkina

Faso. French bases in Tessalit and Kidal will also be shuttered, the French military has said.

Timbuktu Mayor Aboubacrin­e Cissé does not hide his unease with France’s decision to end its Operation Barkhane.

In the eight years since the extremists fled into the desert, life has returned to Timbuktu almost as before. The destroyed mausoleums have been rebuilt, music has resumed and cultural events are again held every weekend.

The impending departure of the French troops is creating fear among those in Timbuktu who have yearned for the city to regain its status as a popular internatio­nal tourist destinatio­n.

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